Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Hot and Cold

Here in the midwest we are experiencing what the good folks in Lake Wobegone would term a “mild cold snap.” Not being as stoic as the citizens of that town on the edge of the prairie, the cold necessitated a bit more care in my kit the past few days.

I have neoprene booties on my shoes and use bar mitts on my handlebars, so both my toes and fingers are pretty well protected from the cold and wind. Still, without a little care, I will experience cold toes and/or cold fingers. Something dawned on me on the ride home yesterday. If my fingers get cold, I can push a bit harder and generate more heat. Then my fingers warm up. My toes might now be cold, though. I think that’s because the extra effort pushes my toes into the front of my shoe, reducing blood flow. I can focus on pulling more on the backstroke, reducing pressure on my toes (and increasing pressure on my heels), increasing blood flow to my toes, and they warm up. Alas, now I’m using my quads less and my (weaker) hamstrings more, so I don’t generate as much heat, and my fingers start to get cold again.

Yesterday I failed to find a happy medium. It looks like I need to develop my hamstrings more so they are capable of warming my fingers by themselves.

Monday, January 05, 2015


I love to ride my bikes (I have several). Some things that make me happy (there are many more):

  • Watching the sun rise over Lake Michigan
  • The momentary connection with a teenager I see practicing track stands
  • A quick wave to drivers who yield the right-of-way
  • The money I save when I don’t take the train to work
  • The countdown on the last few days before reaching 5,000 miles for the year
  • Working on my bikes

For all that, there are some things I don’t like. Scary stuff happens pretty frequently. I don’t like not being able to share the entirety of my bike experience with my lovely wife, simply because some of the things I might want to share would scare the bejeebers out of her. Like the near misses. Or the stories of other cyclists who have been maimed or killed by cars.

This all came into focus recently when I read about the death of Tom Palermo, a framebuilder in Baltimore, MD. Several aspects of the tragedy seemed eerily similar to those related to the death of Bobby Cann here in Chicago:

  • Both drivers had previous alcohol-related brushes with the law.
  • Both cyclists were struck from behind.
  • Both incidents occurred during the daytime on straight streets with plenty of visibility.

I went back and read the Chicago Reader article carefully (I don't recall seeing it before), and was struck by something. Ryne San Hamel, the driver accused of killing Bobby Cann, not only had two DUI arrests within a year as an underage (18-19yo) drinker ten years before, both cases had been plea bargained down to almost nothing, in exchange for seemingly hefty fines. From the article:

It seems one key to getting off easy is being arrested in the suburbs. "A lot of times, the village attorneys are just out to make money for the village," [Cathy] Stanley [court watch director for the Alliance Against Intoxicated Motorists] claims. In plea deals, village attorneys can reduce charges or overturn license suspensions in exchange for adding hefty fines, Stanley says. Prosecutors in the state's attorney's office, by contrast, "work much harder getting convictions."
The village attorney dropped the misdemeanor DUI charge, and San Hamel paid a $1,886 fine for making an improper turn. As part of the plea bargain, he also attended DUI school and completed one year of court supervision. The improper-turn citation was dropped too.

So we have what appears to be a significant conflict of interest on the part of the village attorney where this case was adjudicated, and probably for other city, town, county, and village attorneys all across the state. In exchange for a hefty fine (which almost certainly went into the village coffers, not into some sort of DUI fund), San Hamel never served a day in jail, and it appears he never lost his license. Furthermore, those two arrests were expunged from his record, so that in 2013, the police investigating the death of Bobby Cann initially only saw a ticket San Hamel had received for running a red light in 2010. They had no idea he was a multiple repeat offender.

It seems to me that local prosecutors should not have as much discretion as they do. They thwart the laws passed by the legislature in exchange for a few shekels added to their cities’ coffers. Wouldn't it be better to set up a system where local prosecutors are incentivized to pursue convictions instead of plea bargains? Perhaps the state should reward local jurisdictions monetarily for DUI convictions to remove the incentive to abrogate state law.

Monday, December 01, 2014

Interactions & Negotiations

The law here in Illinois says that as a cyclist I “must obey the same traffic laws, signs and signals that apply to motorists.” Even though I’m breaking the law, I frequently use the Idaho Stop; I roll through stop signs and often proceed through red lights after stopping. yet, I’m not a risk taker. Most cyclists aren't. Every time I get on my bike, I intend to return home safely. I’m not generally a scofflaw.

So, why do I (as a cyclist) frequently execute Idaho stops, given that they are not legal in Illinois? It’s really pretty simple. Every time I encounter a car, we have a bike/car interaction. (Bike/bike and bike/pedestrian interactions are also common, but are generally much less risky than those which involve cars.) The more I've considered this, the more it’s become apparent to me that every interaction between two parties (driver, cyclist, pedestrian) implies that a negotiation takes place.

A failed negotiation is a problem. The law attempts to very broadly short-circuit the need for negotiations, but does so in an imperfect fashion. Consider a four-way stop. I arrive at the intersection on my bike and want to continue straight. A car arrives after me from the right and wants to turn right. The law says I have the right-of-way, since I arrived at the intersection first. We have an interaction, and thus, a negotiation.

Strictly interpreted, the law specifies the outcome of that negotiation. I go, then the car goes. However, if we follow the law in the strict sense, and I proceed through the intersection, all I do is open myself up for another interaction and negotiation after both I and the driver have left the intersection, because the car is going to pass me, probably within the next block. That interaction is also governed by law here in Illinois (the three-foot rule). That rule is new (so isn't widely practiced yet), and it’s squishier than, say, the right-of-way rule at the intersection. Judging a three foot distance is more difficult than telling if a car has come to a complete stop. To complicate matters further, as the cyclist being overtaken, I’m at a distinct disadvantage in the negotiation. The driver holds most of the cards. I can move over and take the lane, but since I can’t see the driver, I can’t really tell what effect that maneuver has on him. Is he still going to try and pass me? Have I simply pissed him off? Have I confused him? If I don’t take the lane, am I opening myself up to getting doored? So, let’s back up to the original interaction at the intersection. Instead of using the default negotiation (the “contract” specified by the law?) It seems clear to me that I should yield my right-of-way to the driver to avoid the potentially more problematic future interaction.

Now, let’s consider another situation. I arrive at a stop light with a “no right on red” sign (quite common here in the Chicago area), and a car arrives after me, wanting to turn right. Furthermore, let’s assume nobody is coming from either direction on the cross street (a wasted green light). Should I wait for the light to change? In my mind, no. Just as in the first example, by proceeding through the red light, I avoid the possibility of a future interaction (me going straight, the driver turning) in which I am at a negotiating disadvantage. The driver might not have seen me, or might assume she can complete the turn before I get in her way.

To conclude, I try to ride in a way I feel minimizes interactions (especially with cars), and thus reduces the need to enter into negotiations. Reducing the number of negotiations reduces the chance of a negative result.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

StVZO lights

Here in the US of A, we apparently have no standards at the state or federal levels regarding bike light beam shape. Consequently, the only common choices available from any retailer (from Wal-Mart to specialty bike shops) are basically insanely powerful flashlights (we are, if nothing else, a bigger-is-better society) which attach to various parts of your bike or body. They are powerful enough, that I use a cheapo light which was retired from bike duty a couple years ago as a flashlight in my workshop. I suppose symmetric beam patterns are fine if you ride off-road, but they are not great when you ride on the road. One, such lights waste a lot of the light they generate. Light goes up and to the sides just as effectively as it goes down and to the front. Two, a good chunk of the light which doesn't illuminate your path serves mostly to blind oncoming bikes, cars and pedestrians. Even off-road, I have to question the utility of over-illuminating everything other than your path.
Over in Germany they do have a bike equipment standard, StVZO. I don't know what all the details are (it applies to other bike factors besides lighting), but it at least legislates headlight beam pattern. This is a good thing. More of the light generated goes where you need it -- on the road -- and much less of it goes where you don't. Consequently, the lights themselves don't need to generate as much raw output. You can get by with a lower power light which will last longer between charges or battery replacement.
I use a Philips SafeRide on my commuter, but there's nothing special about it. (I like it, but my intent here isn't to promote a specific light.) There are plenty of options available. In fact, if you search eBay for "StVZO" you will see lots of battery powered lights which advertise StVZO compliance. They don't seem to be any more expensive than their super powered flashlight brethren. Many are produced in Asia (no great surprise there), which probably helps keep costs down.
If you're looking for a new bike light, I think you should consider one with an StVZO-compliant beam. If you prefer to shop locally, ask your LBS what they can get their hands on. If their only option is to sell you what they can get from their distributors, ask them to lean on those folks. If that doesn't produce results, vote with your wallet and find something online.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Three things all cyclists and motorists should do

I firmly believe that bikes are fundamentally different modes of transportation than driving or walking. I think it's unfortunate that bikes are, for the most part, treated by the law as "little cars." I recognize that this treatment has a long history. Given the amount of time which has passed since bikes were last the dominant conveyance on our streets, it's not surprising that streets were largely designed with cars in mind. Still, from my perspective, there are at least a few important ways that moving around by bike is much different than moving around in a car or truck:

  1. Cyclists can safely get much closer to intersections (and see much better around corners) before committing to stop or go.
  2. When cyclists put themselves in any sort of traffic situation, they are completely unprotected. For that reason alone, they will (if they have their thinking caps on) be much more cautious about risking an incident involving a car, bike or pedestrian.
Accordingly, I have no problem with people rolling through four-way stops or proceeding through a red light after stopping (even cars, assuming they are doing it right, but that's a whole 'nuther kettle of fish). Still, those things don't remove your obligation from being a good citizen on the road. Most of my riding is done in an urban environment, which colors my view of how things work. I realize that in lower density suburban and rural areas things may work differently. That said, I think the entire system would work much better if cyclists and motorists all considered these three points.
  1. Never deny someone else their right-of-way. If you come to a four-way stop and someone else has already gotten there, that person (driver, pedestrian, cyclist) has the right-of-way. It's their choice to yield it or not, not yours. Don't take it from them.
  2. Always signal your intentions. Many people seem to think that turn signals are optional. They are not. Ignoring the codified laws (which seem not to be enforced anyway), signaling your intention to turn, change lanes, or stop reduces confusion, and thus the risk of an incident.
  3. Never accelerate to make a yellow light for which you can stop. No matter how experienced or lucky you are, eventually your experience will fail you and your luck will run out. You will run a red light, and collide with someone going the other way.
Note that I used the absolute words "never" and "always" above. I realize people make mistakes, and that perfection is impossible. Still, it should be a goal. Some days, I try and count the number of mistakes on my commute. I think it's a useful exercise. If you're honest about it, it might help you see your actions as they appear to other people.

There will be times when you fail to notice a light changing until it's too late to stop. As a cyclist, I know when I'm looking to see what hazards await me, I am much more finely tuned to motor vehicles. That means I will sometimes fail to see a pedestrian. That's a mistake. I need to get better at seeing everyone, not just the people who can do me the most harm. I also admit to not being the best person when it comes to signaling turns or stops when riding my bike. I will try to to better at that. For people in cars, you have no excuse. Your stop lights better work. If you fail to engage your turn signal (or, perhaps worse, set it, then change your mind and go straight), that's your fault, not mine.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Music of the city

This is a long-delayed post. I commute into the Chicago Loop from Evanston on a regular basis. My normal inbound route includes Wells south of the Chicago River. Most of the time the sound is typical city stuff: cars zipping by, horns honking, or the often deafening sound of a CTA train rolling overhead. Once though, a slow-moving CTA train tapped out the beat to Glenn Miller's In the Mood. I thought it was cool.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Vintage Bike Classifieds - A Great Vintage

If you're reading this blog, you're probably a bit like me, buying and selling bikes and bike parts, out there looking for the next good deal. I'm into vintage bikes. It seems I always have one under construction. I just finished off a Trek 520 fixed gear commuter. My next project is a Jim Redcay frame.

Ebay is clearly the biggest marketplace for vintage bike parts, but the fees for sellers keep going up, and if you're a buyer, you worry about scams, shill bidding and other nefarious practices. It's enough to drive you crazy at times. Forum sites like and the Paceline have classified forums, but they are difficult to search effectively, and you nothing really expires. Craigslist is another alternative, but it's really only effective locally, and is overrun with scams.

There hasn't been a really dedicated place for vintage bike nuts to buy and sell stuff until now. Tom Jordan, a regular contributor to Classic Rendezvous, recently fired up A Great Vintage, a classified website focused exclusively on vintage bikes and bike parts. "Vintage" is defined as any bikes or parts from roughly 1990 or before.